MONEY Shopping

You May Already Be Too Late for the Hottest Holiday Toys

141210_EM_HottestToys
Richard Drew—AP If your kid wants Disney's Frozen Castle & Ice Palace Playset, let's hope you bought it already.

Favorites from Frozen, Legos, and more are gone from store shelves or going fast. Expect to pay up if you don't want to disappoint.

If you still have Disney’s Frozen Castle and Ice Palace Playset on your holiday gift list this year, you may already be out of luck.

With Christmas approaching, the $119 toy—made by Mattel Inc—is sold out. Of course, you can find it at resellers for about $225 and even as high as $700 on eBay. There are still plenty of other Frozen-themed toys available—but only for now.

Industry analysts, poring over results from the Thanksgiving holiday week, say the hottest 25 toys have already hit their price lows and will only get more expensive as Christmas nears and the remaining inventory flies off stores’ shelves.

The silver lining? Retailers made a huge bet on toy inventory this holiday season—ordering twice as many shipments of Legos as last year, for instance, according to research firm Panjiva.

Expect fierce price competition at major retailers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc and Target Corp, which carry thousands of toys, notes Jim Silver, editor-in-chief of Time to Play Magazine.

“There will be huge promotions going on,” he predicts.

The sales will not be nationwide shopping events like Black Friday, but will pop up sporadically, culminating in major sales on Dec. 20, the Saturday before Christmas which experts expect to be an extremely heavy shopping day.

“One by one, either loudly or quietly, they will be rolling out some amazing deals,” says Panjiva CEO Josh Green.

Early Birds Get Hot Toys

Consumers love sales, but Silver notes they may be very disappointed if they can’t find the hottest toys.

Besides the sold-out Frozen Castle, there are 12 to 15 items which are currently hard to find, including the Max Tow Truck. It is listed currently around $128 on Amazon.com, depending on color—well above its list price of $59.99. Another hot item is the Imaginext Supernova Battle Rover—currently available for $109.99 at Toys R Us, slightly below the list price of $119.

There are also about 25 to 30 toys that will sell out in the next two weeks, Silver says, especially the most popular new toys in the Lego, Barbie, My Little Pony, FurReal Friend, and Nerf lines.

Toys with a movie or popular culture tie-in drive demand, while interactive pets tend to be short-lived fads (think Zhu Zhu Pets or Furby).

“There are clear bets by retailers—orders for Frozen toys and My Little Pony toys are up massively versus 2013,” says Green.

Most hot toys hit their price lows on Cyber Monday, according to data firm MarketTrack. This year, for example, the FurReal Friend Get Up & GoGo dog, which has a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $59.99, was being offered for $49.99 at most stores in early November. It went down to $39 just before Thanksgiving and hit $27 on Amazon on Cyber Monday.

The very next day, the dog, which responds to commands from a remote-control leash, was back up to $39. The price is now fluctuating at most stores because of limited supply.

Similarly, the My Little Pony Friendship Rainbow Kingdom Playset, which lists at $39.99, was on sale for $35 at Target on Black Friday and bottomed out at $19.99 on Cyber Monday on Amazon for a half-price sale. It is now back up to $34 at Wal-Mart and Toys R Us.

What should shoppers do if they want the hottest toys?

“Grab the hot items early and then get bargain toys when you can,” Silver says. But you may have to wait until next year to employ this strategy.

 

MONEY Shopping

Controversial Abercrombie CEO Steps Down

Michael S. Jeffries, chairman and CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch.
Mark Lennihan—AP Michael S. Jeffries, former CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch.

The CEO who called his brand "exclusionary" and only for "cool kids" is retiring.

Michael Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch, is retiring effective immediately, the clothing retailer announced on Tuesday.

Jeffries, who made headlines with tone-deaf comments about the company’s business practices, was relieved of his duties as chairman in January after investors became dissatisfied with his leadership.

Abercrombie stock—which rose more than 6% on the news—is down more than 60% from its highs in 2006-2007 and down almost 20% in the last year.

Jeffries, who during his 20-year tenure with the company turned it into a trendy powerhouse with more than $1 billion in sales, took heat in recent years for failing to keep up with “fast fashion” brands like Forever 21 and Zara and falling out of favor with its primary teen demographic. But the now-former CEO also tarnished the brand through a series of poorly conceived public statements and business decisions that alienated potential customers.

In an infamous 2006 interview with Salon, Jeffries bragged:

In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids… A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.

And:

That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that.

That interview later resurfaced in 2013, along with news that Abercrombie was refusing to offer plus-size clothing, even as competitors like H&M began to make their sizing more inclusive. Together, the revelations caused renewed backlash against the brand.

According to the company’s announcement, a management team led by Executive Chairman Arthur Martinez will manage the company until a new CEO is appointed.

 

MONEY Shopping

How to Get the Best Prices on Holiday Gifts Every Time

Stack of coins on top of computer mouse
David Muir—Getty Images

These online tools can save you big money on holiday shopping

After a lackluster Black Friday (and a less-lackluster-but-still-not-great Cyber Monday) it looks like Americans still have plenty of holiday shopping ahead of them. Indeed, many shoppers now assume that the best deals are likely to appear weeks after the frenzied launch of the shopping season has passed. And they are probably right.

But with sales so ubiquitous throughout December, it’s hard to know if you’re actually getting a bargain at any given moment and at any given store or website. Luckily, using one of these free online tools can ensure that you always get a solid deal.

In-person shopping

Arguably, there’s no longer a compelling reason to leave your home (or even your bed) to shop. But if you prefer to hold an item in your hands before you buy, you like to come across gift ideas via serendipity, or you simply enjoy the thrill of the hunt, you still might find yourself in brick-and-mortar stores at holiday time.

Whatever the reason, use The Find to make sure you’re getting a decent price before you pull out your wallet. It’s true that many apps let you scan products inside a store to compare prices at other retailers, both brick-and-mortar and online. I like The Find best because it usually cross-checks more retailers than the competition (it’s the only price-comparison tool I’ve seen that includes Amazon results, other than Amazon’s own app) and it saves your scans so you can view them later when you get back to a computer. The Find also works on both iOS and Android, making it available to most shoppers.

RetailMeNot is useful for a different reason: It will show you a selection of the latest deals, a map of coupons for nearby stores, and allow you to search for specific store coupons. You can save these deals right in the app and then use them at checkout. RetailMeNot also shows online offers for a particular store right next to the in-store deals, so you’ll know whether it’s better to buy in person or over the web.

Many stores have their own app that comes loaded with coupons, deals, and other ways to save. Walmart’s Savings Catcher, for example, lets shoppers scan their receipts and then get instant rebates if another store offers the same item at a cheaper price. Target’s Cartwheel app gives customers instant coupons that they can then apply to their purchase. If you’re about to go shopping, search your phone’s app store and see if your retailer of choice has their own official app that offers similar deals.

Online shopping

Make no mistake: The apps listed above can ensure you’re getting a competitive price — but they can’t always get you the best price. For that, or something close to it, you probably have to shop from home on your computer, and it helps if you also monitor prices, deals, and coupons over time.

PriceBlink, for example, tracks the competition as you shop in real time. This browser extension automatically recognizes that you’re looking at a product and shows you a list of competing prices right on the same page. See a better deal? Just click and you’re there. It also alerts you to any coupons or deals it detects.

Maybe you already found the best available price on the web, but aren’t sure whether to buy now or wait for an even better deal? That’s the kind of first-world anxiety TrackIf exists to treat. This website allows you to set price alerts on any product, and will email you if the price drops any lower. It even comes with a handy browser extension that will show you a product’s recent price history so you’ll know whether you’re getting the best price.

Coupons are another great way to save money, but most people don’t use them because it’s annoying to go around the web hunting down the right codes. Coupons at Checkout addresses that by making coupons pretty much effortless. Just install the browser extension and it will automatically offer you relevant coupon codes when you go to checkout at an online retailer.

 

MONEY Shopping

Why You’re Shopping More for Yourself This Holiday Season

woman trying on shoes at store
Jason Hetherington—Getty Images

Is that giant TV in your shopping cart a gift—or for you? With more people snapping up holiday deals for themselves, retailers are starting to cater to these self-gifters.

Jill Bascou looked like a typical holiday gift shopper standing in line on Thanksgiving Day shortly after the Target in Marlton, New Jersey opened at 6 p.m.

Except she wasn’t buying for other people.

The 39-year-old was waiting to get herself an iPad. In her cart was the xBox her husband had been coveting, and her father was in another part of the store hunting down a giant, cheap TV—for himself.

Retailers call this self-gifting. Look at a major store’s circular advertising holiday gifts—from the $5 toasters at Kohl’s to a $279 Dyson vacuum at Target—and you’ll see the top draws are items people typically buy for themselves.

Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at NPD Group, started tracking the trend of self-gifting six years ago, after interviewing a shopper on Black Friday at a Macy’s.

The woman had a huge pile of clothes over one arm and a smaller pile on her other. Cohen was surprised to learn that woman was buying the big pile for herself. Her mother and sister were the designated recipients of the other pile.

Now 30% of purchases over the Thanksgiving holiday are attributed to self-gifting, Cohen says. Surveys from the National Retail Federation bear this out, showing that 77% of shoppers took advantage of discounts to buy for themselves over the holiday weekend.

Toys are the obvious exception, but almost everything else—the TVs, the home goods, even the clothing—are items that people are often buying for themselves.

Retailers have been catching on, adjusting inventories and messaging. Kathy Grannis, spokesperson for the NRF, points to a pop-up gift tag ad recently on Gap’s website that read “From Us to You,” and was clearly meant to engage self-gifters.

For clothing retailers, Grannis says the enticements to shoppers are often in the form of a significant discount off the whole store. Old Navy offered half off everything on Thanksgiving Day, which drew Sarita Henriquez, 36, of Burlington, New Jersey, to shop for herself, with no set spending limit in mind.

“I’m being greedy this year,” Henriquez said as she waited in her car for the store to open at 4 p.m.

“I hear self-gifting reported as greediness, but there’s really more nuance than that,” says Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and author of Decoding the New Consumer Mind.

Yarrow breaks down self-gifting holiday shoppers to three types: those buying special things like outfits and decor in order to be more social; those delaying purchases because they are expecting bargains, and those who are buying on impulse based on what’s available.

Impulse buyers are the key target for retailers’ special doorbusters. These are folks like the Hartman brothers, (Ed, 25, Shawn, 24, and Tyler, 21) who, while visiting family for Thanksgiving, each waited for cheap TVs at a Best Buy near Cherry Hill, N.J. to put in their own homes.

Cohen’s advice for shoppers who missed out on the early sales and are still waiting for big discounts: “Be patient and wait for the price to come to you.”

Don’t obsess over getting the absolute rock-bottom prices if it means delaying what you want, Cohen adds. You can always return an item if you find it for less and try to get the store to price match—as long as you have your receipt.

And just wait until you see next year’s sales.

“Retailers will figure this out,” says Cohen. And then Thanksgiving week will be even more about self-gifting, “and then there will be another set of doorbusters for later in December.”

MONEY Holidays

8 Smart Ways to Save When Buying Holiday Gifts for a Big Family

Buying christmas presents for a big family
Vstock LLC—Getty Images

You've made your list, checked it twice, and—my god, are there really that many names on it?! Keep your budget from being scrooged by your generosity with these strategies.

If you’ve got a lot of people to buy for, you’re probably used to watching your holiday budget spiral out of control.

The costs of purchasing presents for a long list adds up fast. The average American expects to spend $720 this year, according to a Gallup poll, and a quarter of people will spend more than $1,000. If you’ve got a huge extended family or a big coterie of gift-exchanging friends, you may have found that your own expenses surpass even that not-so-grand figure.

And many people embrace the giving spirit and are generous to a fault: Nearly four in 10 people admit to feeling pressured to spend more than they can afford during the holiday season.

To help spare you some pain when January’s credit card bill arrives, MONEY asked a few smart mom bloggers to share some of the cost-cutting strategies they use for their own gift giving. Cue the elves!

1. Cut Out the Adults

“Last year we agreed with my brother and sister-in-law to only exchange gifts for the kids. It was the start of something wonderful. We have agreed to do it again this year, and I also reached out to another family-in-law this year to do the same. We have reduced our present load by at least four, saving about $150 to $200—as well as the weeks-long process of my husband mulling over the perfect present while vetoing everything I suggest!” —Elissha Park, The Broke Mom’s Guide to Everything

2. Rotate Recipients

“On one side of the family, we rotate between the four siblings and their families as to whom we give gifts. My three kids enjoy coming up with a theme and putting together a ‘family gift’ for their cousins.”—Gina Lincicum, MoneywiseMoms

3. Agree to Get Crafty

“On the other side of our family, we do homemade gifts—still sticking to a dollar amount because it’s easy to overspend even with craft supplies. These have been some of our family’s favorite gifts, like the CDs of favorite kid songs my son made for his uncles when they became new dads!” —Gina Lincicum, MoneywiseMoms

4. Think In Tiers

“It’s so easy to go overboard from year to year. That’s why I use a three-tiered gift-giving system: Tier 1 is family. We do gift exchanges with each individual person in our immediate family, and set a budget for each person. Tier 2 is friends. We typically do a single-family gift for our friends, like movie tickets with free babysitting or a fun new game for them to play together. Tier 3 is neighbors and co-workers. I create homemade chocolate goodies in handmade packages.

Once I establish my budgets for each tier and the people in them, I create a cash envelope for that tier. I only spend cash on what I buy for gifts, supplies and even wrapping paper. Once the cash in the envelope is gone, it’s gone!” —Kim Anderson, Thrifty Little Mom

5. Focus on Experiences

“Meaningful gifts don’t have to be extravagant and costly. Consider giving experience gifts—whether that means buying tickets for a ball game or making plans to take the kids to a matinee movie. Sometimes, the most remembered gifts are those that took thought, not money.” —Crystal Paine, Money Saving Mom

6. Pick One and Be Done

“We often employ the Secret Santa method for the adults in our extended family, because with all the siblings and parents things can add up pretty quickly! Rather than try to spend $50 on everyone in each family—which would total $500—we each pick one name to buy for, with a set price range of $100 to $150 per person. This cuts our costs pretty much in half. Plus, this method makes sure that the adults each get a nice bigger gift rather than a whole bunch of smaller gifts. (We don’t include kids in Secret Santa—under 18 means you get a gift!) It adds a fun element, too, seeing who got who and what they got them!” —Scarlet Paolicchi, Family Focus Blog

7. Set Aside Cash

“As a mom of five boys, planning ahead for the holidays is an absolute must. Four of my kids are teenagers, and while their wish lists may not be as long as they were when they were younger, the price of their toys has certainly gone up.

To combat the heavy hit the holiday season takes on our budget, my husband and I decide in January how much we want to spend on each child (as well as on ourselves) for the holidays and birthdays for the upcoming year.

We then take the total, divide it by 12, and put that amount into a special savings account every month. By putting away a small amount each month, we aren’t met with panic when the holiday season is upon us.”—Candace Anderson, Frugal Mom

8. Block Up the Chimney

“Decide with your family to forgo gifts all together. Volunteer Christmas morning so you don’t feel like you’re missing out on anything, and instead of exchanging gifts, take some of the money you all would have spent and use it for an experience together.” —Anna Newell Jones, And Then We Saved

MONEY Shopping

Why You Should Skip That Extended Warranty

Broken TV
Jeffrey Coolidge/Getty Images (TV)—Oliver Childs/Getty Images (screen)

Buying an extended warranty is almost always a waste of money. But people do it anyway because they misunderstand the true purpose of insurance.

It’s holiday shopping season, and anyone who has recently bought a TV, smartphone, or other expensive piece of equipment has likely been on the receiving end of a hard sell for an extended warranty: That’s a nice television you’ve got there. Would be a shame if something happened to it. And wouldn’t you know it? For a mere $59.99, the salesman can offer a little piece of mind in the form of (overpriced) insurance.

It’s a pitch that works, even on those who should know better. Sure, the TV costs $750, meaning you’re paying 8% extra to protect your purchase. But that’s a good deal when the alternative is paying another seven hundred fifty if the machine ever croaks, right?

As the New York Times’ Damon Darlin points out, this kind of faulty logic comes from our collective inability to price risk correctly. Realistically, the TV you just purchased probably has a very low failure rate—Darlin cites data suggesting only 2%-4% of brand-name TVs turn out to be lemons. So you should really be multiplying the cost of your purchase by the likelihood it will break. In the case of a $750 TV with a 4% failure rate, he suggests an appropriately priced insurance policy would be $30.

But even Darlin is giving extended warranties too much credit. The real reason most people pay too much for product protection isn’t because they don’t understand risk (although that’s probably also true), it’s because they don’t understand the economics of insurance in the first place.

The fact is, all insurance policies are overpriced. That’s the nature of insurance. Whenever you buy a policy, whether it’s for your car, your health, or your television, the company selling it to you is betting you will pay more in premiums than your car repairs or health care will ever actually cost. And these companies employ thousands of very smart people to make sure they’re likely to win that wager.

“Even if you do all these calculations, you don’t think insurance companies haven’t also done the same calculations and for some reason believe they’re going to make money nonetheless?” asks Drew Tignanelli, president of the Financial Consulate website. “The way I look at insurance is that it is not designed to save me from every nickel and dime I will lose. If I try that, I will definitely cost myself more than what I’m putting out.”

So if insurance coverage is intrinsically overpriced, why do we buy it at all? “Insurance is meant to prevent me from running into a financial catastrophe or devastation,” Tignanelli explains. An astronomical medical expense, repair bill, or legal fee is unlikely, but it could mean complete financial ruin. Those outcomes are so terrible that they’re worth paying a premium to avoid.

But no matter how much you love Scandal or Game of Thrones, a broken TV is not a catastrophe—financial or otherwise. Most purchases are cheap enough, and their failure rate low enough, for you to safely bet that the product you bought will work for the foreseeable future.

If you’re right—and in the case of TVs there’s a 96% chance you are—you’ll save money. And in the unlikely event it does break, you’ll either be able to afford a new one, or at the very least go without for a while. There’s also a good chance your credit card provides some amount of warranty protection, or that the cost of repairs will be roughly the same price as an extended warranty anyway.

If you play the odds over time, you’re all but guaranteed to come out on top. After all, the entire insurance industry is built on that very assumption.

Do you have the insurance you really need? Check out these articles to find out:
Homeowner’s Insurance: Covered? Don’t Be So Sure
Here’s a New Reason to Think Twice Before Buying Long-Term Care Insurance
How to Do an Insurance Inventory
You Can Now Buy Health Insurance at Walmart—but Should You?

MONEY consumer psychology

5 Reasons Why You Give Such Awful Presents

cupcake in a ring box
Tooga—Getty Images

If it's the thought that counts when it comes to giving terrific presents, then what exactly are horrible gift-givers thinking?

We’ve all suffered through that awkward silence at least once, the one that comes right after someone opens the holiday gift that you selected—and that’s somehow not quite right. In fact, it’s a horrible gift. It’s inappropriate, thoughtless, silly, or otherwise ill-considered.

Depending on the manners of the recipient, the reaction to the presentation of such a gift might be a forced squeal of delight, an overly broad, stiff smile, or a quick, flat “thank you” tinged with a touch of confusion. Or something far worse. But there’s no getting around the fact that, as far as presents go, this one has been deemed pretty awful.

How could this have happened, you wonder? You’re usually such a thoughtful gift-giver. It’s not that you don’t like the recipient, nor that you were trying to make a statement or cheap out—among the disturbing psychological motivations for presents that wind up on the Worst Gifts Ever Awards list that I’ve chronicled in previous years. Still, even the most seasoned, well-intentioned shoppers make mistakes. After talking with scores of recipients about why some gifts are awful, a handful of explanations surfaced repeatedly.

So that you can avoid developing a reputation as a bad gift-giver, here are the top five reasons why regrettable presents are purchased.

1. The “This Will Make a Nice Gift” Gift

Leslie purchased three elegant carving sets (the kind you use to carve a roast or turkey) at an online auction because she thought they “would make nice gifts” for someone. “They were like 80% off, and I guess I wasn’t thinking about who exactly they would make nice gifts for because everyone I gave them to seemed confused,” she recalled. “In retrospect they were right. I wasn’t thinking about the person I’d be giving them to, just that they were beautiful—and that I could give an expensive sort of gift for not much money.”

If you find yourself considering a purchase but you don’t have a recipient in mind, think about Leslie. Then think again and reconsider making the purchase. The best gifts are purchased with a specific recipient in mind. Very rarely does it work out that someone buys a gift and later finds the perfect person to give it to.

2. The “How Old is He Again?” Gift

Many people see relatives only during the holidays, or even less frequently than that. It’s easy to think of people as who they were the last time we saw them, rather than realize who they are right now. Which is basically Maryanne’s explanation for why she gave her 14-year-old step-niece sparkly barrettes and a butterfly wand for Christmas last year. “I was shocked when I saw her, she was so grown-up all of a sudden!” Maryanne said. “Needless to say, she hated the little girl gifts.”

This kind of mistake can be made not just because of age-related snafus, but also by givers failing to notice changes in life stages, looks, interests, and hobbies. A man named Joe told me that he finds it odd—and a bit annoying—that he still gets a tie every year from one of his sons even though he’s been retired for years: “I’ve got a closet full of ties and it no place to wear them.”

3. The “All Hat, No Cattle” Gift (and Vice Versa)

Wrapping makes a statement. For some reason, Janine decided to use an old Tiffany box to hold an ornament she’d purchased for her sister. “You should have seen her face, actually both of them,” Janine remembered. “The one she had when she saw the Tiffany box—all excited. And then the one she had when she opened the box—not good.”

I think the sister would have liked the ornament a lot more if the blue box presentation didn’t make her think it was going to be something else. On the other hand, Ray slipped a diamond ring in the bowl of a mixer, wrapped the whole thing up and gave it to his wife for Christmas. “She was so mad about that mixer, she’d told me not to get her any more cooking equipment, and then she was embarrassed about getting mad when she saw the ring. I don’t know what I was thinking,” Ray said. “It really wasn’t the joyful opening I’d hoped it would be.”

The solution isn’t to skip the wrapping and creativity. It’s to be aware of managing expectations to maximize the pleasure of the gift. And remember surprises aren’t necessarily good.

4. The “Procrastinator’s Special” Gift

Procrastinators usually do so for one of two reasons: They’re mulling among two or more options and it’s taking a while; or they are really unclear on what to do, where to go and how to pick so they drag their feet, knowing that if they make a mistake they can blame it on time constraints. Procrastinators can make inspired gift choices — but the odds are against them.

Pamela is married to a procrastinator. “My husband got me really fabulous shoes, but in the wrong size with a note saying that I should exchange them for the right size,” she said. “When I tried to exchange them were sold out, which was also the case when he bought them — probably on Christmas Eve.”

5. The “The Impulsively Purchased Extravagance” Gift

When do we purchase impulsively? When we’re wowed. In today’s marketplace, dominated as it is with dramatic Black Friday discounts and big markdowns throughout the holidays, that “wow” is more likely to come after we see a special price rather than a special product. Shoppers can easily get blindsided by a tempting price, not to mention the idea that they’ll be able to give a seemingly extravagant gift that’s still within their budget.

That’s the gist of how Megan ended up giving her mother a dry-clean-only cashmere robe for Christmas last year. “It was elegant, and even though it was almost twice as expensive as the plush robe she’d asked for, I was thrilled to give it to her. Until I saw her face,” said Megan. “She had this ‘Did I raise a crazy daughter?’ look on her face, and in that instant I realized what a mistake I’d made. Unfortunately, I got it at an outlet mall. I couldn’t return it so it lives on to remind me to stick with the list.”

Which is good advice for everyone.

Kit Yarrow, Ph.D., is a consumer psychologist who is obsessed with all things related to how, when and why we shop and buy. She conducts research through her professorship at Golden Gate University and shares her findings in speeches, consulting work, and her books, Decoding the New Consumer Mind and Gen BuY.

MONEY deals

The Hottest Holiday Deals Are for Stuff You’d Never Give as Gifts

Staples copy paper
Mark Lennihan—AP

Right now, arguably the best holiday shopping deals are for household staples: printer paper, tissues, disinfectant wipes, and toilet paper.

Retailers engage in all sorts of crafty tactics to manipulate customers into buying things they otherwise wouldn’t, but there would have to be one seriously masterful sales job to make consumers think that toilet paper is the perfect item to wrap and place under the Christmas tree.

Instead, retailers are offering dramatic discounts right now on items that shoppers need for their own households. Think: printer paper for 1¢ and disinfectant wipes for 75% off.

While it might seem to make more sense during the holiday season to have great deals on things that people would actually give as holiday gifts, the strategy is perfectly logical in one fairly obvious way: It draws loads of shoppers out to stores (or pushes them into making purchases online), with the idea that once these customers are in the buying mood, they’re likely to be tempted into buying gifts and other items that aren’t discounted quite as dramatically.

What’s more, this strategy seems timed well for the period right after Black Friday and Cyber Monday. It’s normally somewhat of a lull for consumers, who are likely exhausted after browsing the barrage of deals during the big shopping weekend, and who don’t yet feel the pressure to make last-minute holiday gift purchases. In this way, can’t-pass-up-deals on things that everyone needs serve as a sensible prod to woo shoppers into buying more stuff.

Hence this week’s roster of coupons from Staples, which can be printed out and presented in-store only for some amazing deals through Friday, including:

for a ream of multipurpose paper (normally $7.99)

$2.99 for three-pack of Kleenex facial tissues (compare to $7.99)

$8.99 for 12 rolls of Bounty Basic paper towels (normally $16.19)

$8.99 for 24 rolls of Charmin Basic bath tissue (normally $11.49)

20% off cups, plates, and cutlery

50% off select Philips lightbulbs

Staples’ big competitor in the office-supply space, Office Depot (and its sibling Office Max), is also discounting some necessities, including deals for buy one, get one 50% off its store brand paper and 75% off Lysol and Clorox disinfectant wipes.

Meanwhile, Walmart and Amazon appear to be engaged in a price war for a necessity that isn’t really much of a gift on its own, but that’s necessary for many gifts: batteries. The former has an online special right now for a 40-pack of Duracell batteries (30 AA and 10 AAA) for $16.99 (list price: $40), while the latter is listing a 40-pack of Duracell AAs for around $20 (list price: $60).

MONEY online shopping

How to Stop Facebook from Ruining Your Holiday Gift Surprises

Wrapped bicycle
Michael Blann—Getty Images

Parents who shop online—so all parents, basically—need to know how easy it is for kids to find out what they're getting for the holidays.

Every week, it seems, there’s a new scandal about email passwords being stolen or retail customers’ data being hacked by stealthy cyber criminals. Yet such incidents represent only a teeny-tiny slice of how our online behavior is spied upon and used. In the vast majority of cases, our data is tracked and used in entirely legal ways by search engines, social media, retailers, and advertisers. Legal or not, the repercussions of such tracking—and the ads that inevitably follow—can feel like an ongoing privacy violation.

What’s more, targeted ads come with the potential of revealing secrets about what people have been searching, browsing, and buying online. While the results are generally not nearly as devastating as identity theft, they can create tense situations. In probably the most notorious example, a father found out his high school daughter was pregnant only after Target had sent her coupons for cribs and other baby products—offers that were based on her shopping history.

This time of year, the relentless stream of targeted (also known as “interest-based” or “retargeted”) ads that pop up in banners or on the side of web pages also come with the potential of ruining a holiday gift surprise. Say a mom does some browsing online for presents for her son. Soon thereafter, the items she viewed start showing up in ads on the device that was used, along with ads “inspired” by her browsing history.” If and when the would-be recipient hops on the same device, he’ll see all of those ads. Without much sleuthing, he’ll be clued in about what mom was shopping for, and he’ll have a good idea to expect the new Nike high-tops, game console, or whatever come December 25. So much for the big reveal.

It’s unclear how often this scenario plays out, but it’s a possibility some parents worry about. “I guess you have to pick btw letting your kids use the computer and shopping online, since custom ads follow you and spoil gift surprises,” one mom tweeted recently. Last year the founder of Marketing Land wrote at length about his wife’s frustrated attempts to stop banner ads from Macy’s, ThinkGeek, and other retailers she shopped from popping up on the computer she often shared with her kids.

It’s not just parents who worry about blown surprises. One Reddit user recently posted, coyly and excitedly, that her longtime boyfriend had been getting engagement ring ads in his Facebook feed. Surely, she felt, this was an indication that he was getting ready to pop the question. One commenter followed up with a story about a friend whose boyfriend also was flooded with engagement ring ads before he proposed. Then, as soon as she changed her status to “engaged,” she was slammed with weight loss ads offering to provide assistance “fitting into your dress.” Naturally, the baby-related ads followed after the wedding took place.

“You’re stalked with ads related to what you’ve been shopping for all the time,” says Bruce Schneier, an internationally renowned computer security expert and a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Security. Nonetheless, Schneier thinks it’s probably “a rare occurrence” for people to correctly deduce what they’ll be getting as holiday gifts based on the ads they see on a shared computer. “When a kid sees an ad for an Xbox, he’s probably just going to think I want an Xbox, not Mom got me an Xbox.”

For that matter, the presence of these ads is no indication of whether anything was actually purchased. As an Al Jazeera column about “curated” and “retargeted” ads noted, consumers can be “stalked by socks” and other items they browsed while shopping online regardless of whether or not they purchased the goods, or whether they searched for such goods randomly, as a goof, or out of genuine interest. “Personalized ads can be right, but they’re often wrong” in terms of being truly appealing to the right set of eyes, Schneier says.

Most e-retailers offer consumers the right to opt out of being subjected to tracking and retargeted ads, but Schneier thinks doing so is a waste of time. Not only are the processes for opting out convoluted and filled with loopholes, there are so many digitized eyeballs monitoring your online activity that successfully negating them one at a time is virtually impossible.

It’s much better and more effective, he says, to install a tool such as Adblock Plus (which blocks some or all ads according to filters checked by the user), Privacy Badger (which automatically blocks trackers or ads that it deems to violate “the principle of user consent”), or some combination of several blockers. Others recommend shopping online in private browsing mode; when using Google Chrome Incognito, for instance, the browser doesn’t save a record of what sites have been visited, and therefore (theoretically) there should later be no retargeted ads that surface as a result.

If you’re dealing with an especially stubborn child or spouse who has a history of noticing what online ads foretell in terms of holiday gifts, you might want to try a different strategy: Spend some time here and there clicking on all sorts of items haphazardly, or purposely browse for things you know he’d absolutely hate to receive on Christmas. The resulting collection of retargeted ads is likely to be so random, nonsensical, and disappointing that it’ll throw him off the trail and he’ll have no clue what you actually bought.

As a bonus, you’ll simultaneously be messing with the retailers, browsers, and other bots that generate these annoying ads in the first place.

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